London’s Soho is teeming with people who are eating, drinking and being merry. The streets are crowded, the bars are overflowing and music pulsates from the windows. But just a few hours later every stool and dining table is empty - and will stay that way for a month.
Restaurants and bars in Soho have worked to make the area as close to “business as usual” as can be when the capital and the country are in the grip of a global disease pandemic. After jockeying with the local council, tables and chairs were moved out into the street. The 10pm curfew, which has found few supporters among those who have built livelihoods around selling alcohol into the evening, have been enforced - even if it has meant collectively inebriated crowds gathering in the road before cramming into the tube.
The return to lockdown will bring quiet to the West End for a second time this year - but with the public fully aware of what months without a night out can feel like, the short sharp shock of silence that hit Soho in March has been replaced with a crackle of electricity.
There is always a buzz in the evening between Frith, Beak, Dean and Old Compton Street - but it is clear something is different the night before lockdown. In a city where a pint can easily cost more than £5, pubs are offering 50 per cent off to save them emptying casks down the drain. Restaurants are overbooked on a Wednesday evening. One venue with a queue snaking its way down the road to the door is not a nightclub, but the nearest Wetherspoon pub.
“It’s the last night of freedom” says Michael, who is out with four friends - all in their late twenties. “We go out regularly as mates…but this is the last night we’re going to get to for a while”, another adds.
“It’s crazy” Katie says. “The only other time I’ve seen it like this is pride - last summer’s pride”. She and Bella, 21, had met each other for dinner before being drawn to Soho - only to queue for three quarters of an hour to get into bar G-A-Y before giving up. However, as rammed as the streets are, the 25-year-old adds the risk of the coronavirus seems minimal. “It doesn’t feel dangerous because everyone’s outside. No one’s in our face - as much as the pictures will make it look bad, it doesn’t feel bad at the time.”
Meanwhile the idea of spending the final night at the edge of a national lockdown in Soho’s streets seems irresistible. “As s**t as it is that there’s so many people around, it’s still got a vibe”, Bella adds.
It’s not just the bars and their newly claimed al-fresco street space that is full to the brim. A year to the day since his fine dining restaurant Sola opened its door for the first time, chef and restaurateur Victor Garvey is preparing for a fully booked dinner service. “I didn’t even realise it” he says of the anniversary. “My manager told me this morning and we looked at it and said ‘well, at least we’re going out with a bang’”.
An American who has worked in London’s kitchens for a decade, the 35-year old said his restaurant was able to emerge from lockdown to better than expected business - slowly building to a crescendo in September.
“We had a few record nights. We were getting into a routine again, people were liking the food, we found that people were more willing to go out and spend money on occasions. I mean, our restaurant is £230 a head, it’s not a cheap place, but you do get a lovely comfortable table, comfortable seats, a 12 course tasting menu, wine pairing”
He adds, “I don’t think they’re spending less, I think they’re saying rather than going out to eat four times a week maybe we’ll go out once a week but we’ll make it an occasion and I think that’s given us a bit of an edge.”
However government restrictions - particularly those stopping household mixing - had already begun to hit businesses before Boris Johnson announced a return to lockdown. “Make no mistake - when tier 2 happened we lost 70 per cent of our bookings overnight because that automatically disqualified any sort of dates”, Mr Garvey adds. “We took a huge hit but we stayed open just to stay open”.
Slightly further down Dean Street The French House has been serving half pints since the days when an exiled Charles De Gaulle was a punter. The only day it breaks the tradition is April Fools Day - so it is perhaps a sign of the times that only pint glasses have been available in recent months to avoid contact between customers and staff.
The pub’s landlady of 31 years Lesley Lewis spent the last day before lockdown saying fond farewells to her regulars. “It’s like people’s living room here. A lot of people in London live in very small accommodation, they come in here to meet each other and it’s really very cruel for a lot of them to have this taken away like this”, she says. “I think we provide a service that is not just about having a drink or falling over or dancing in the street it’s more about being there for each other.”
The pub was among those left on the brink by the financial hit of first lockdown - but was ultimately saved by donations and gofundme style giveaways aimed at those who cherish the institution enough to fund it through the pandemic. Ahead of last orders, she hopes for more clarity in the future from government that businesses can plan around.
“It was a total relief to me that the furlough was going to extend, but we’ve always got to be so worried all the time. The whole time, all through this, we’ve been on tenterhooks thinking ‘are we going to survive’… it’s turned us all into neurotics because it’s never a straight answer.”
“I’m sure they’ll pull it out again” she adds of the potential for new measures and a longer lockdown in December “so they look like Mr Wonderful, Father Christmas - but it’s so tiresome. It’s so tiresome.“
Mr Garvey agrees. “I think the government is trying to please too many people and I think we need to have one straight line that we go down. We need to lock down and make sure it’s last lockdown, and not pander to anybody by saying we’re going to open on 2 December - because we know that’s not happening.
He adds: “The worst thing that can happen is we come back on the 2 December under tier 2, everything goes pear shaped over Christmas and then in January, February we’re in lockdown again.”
As the night draws to an early close, operators begin to collect in their tables at around 9.30pm - and the streets mostly clear of people with them. A few remain, hassling the officers looking to clear Old Compton, chanting a mixture of “f**k the police” and “Boris is a w****r”. One man works to down a bottle of lager with furious intensity before being taken away by officers. There is a unity in the crowd, an us vs them feeling fuelled by Dutch courage and a rebellious energy, but it soon dissipates.
As it does Soho falls quiet again - the chatter of punters to be replaced by the buzz of delivery mopeds that will allow those who can supply takeaways to do so. “I’m hoping and praying with every part of me that we will actually be open for December, because we need that trade”, Ms Lewis says. “People think a pub is about having a drink - it’s not, it’s being part of the community and supporting each other.”
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